Medical Professionals and Social Networking: The Opportunities, Challenges, and Risks

Maurie Markman, MD
Published: Monday, Apr 11, 2011
Due to the remarkable expansion of the Internet over the past decade, the world of medicine has undergone a revolution in the realm of communication. Today, many hospitals and physician practices have their own Web sites, which advertise their services and ultimately make the patient’s experience more favorable. For example, online registration is increasingly common, thereby reducing the administrative burdens encountered by patients when they arrive at a new facility or healthcare provider’s office.

Physicians and their staff s frequently use e-mail rather than  the telephone to communicate test results or instructions,  and patients can use it to inform their doctors about any new  symptoms or treatment-related side effects. With e-mail, it  is now possible for patients to send inquiries 24 hours a day and potentially receive a response outside of normal business hours. This strategy is particularly attractive for busy clinicians who can use their non-office hours to respond to patient concerns and questions.

Perhaps even more dramatic than how electronic communication has changed the traditional interactions between physicians and their patients is the ever-expanding quantity of medical information that is accessed directly by patients. The Web sites established by existing health-related organizations, patient advocacy initiatives, and private companies currently provide millions of pages of informational content dealing with individual conditions and patient experiences. Of course, to be complete, it is essential to note that the interpretation of what is being stated on a particular site, its usefulness, and its validity are very diff erent issues from mere availability.  

Social Networking and Organized Medicine 

Recently added to this explosion of Internet-based communication between healthcare providers and their patients is the complex and evolving world of social networking. With sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the expansion of strategies to rapidly and easily communicate with 1 or many “friends” in  cyberspace has been nothing short of spectacular.  

Important questions need to be asked in regard to social networking. For instance, how has social networking impacted medicine, and how might this evolve in the future? Are there particular concerns associated with this unique form of communication that healthcare providers, including students and those in training, should fully understand before they elect to participate in 1 or more of these forms of social networking? How can the potential risks be mitigated to help ensure safe and appropriate communication?  +

Opportunities for Social Networking 

Social networking can benefit physicians, patients, professional groups, and medical students/trainees. The following are a few examples.  

Physician-to-physician communication 

Physicians can quickly and easily share opinions with peers regarding a specific medical topic. For example, a new paper on a novel treatment of an uncommon cancer may be published in a peer-reviewed journal or an abstract presented at a national or regional scientific meeting. Is the information truly important? Are there serious flaws in the study design? What are the implications for patients currently under the physician’s care or those who will become patients in the near future?  

Add to these issues the fact that the media may publish information (that may or may not be accurate) on the study results, and patient-associated Internet sites may similarly announce the findings (which, again, may not be accurate).  How should physicians respond if asked by patients how the study results will affect their own care? Rapid communication between a community of interested and knowledgeable physicians may help an individual physician to effectively interpret and subsequently discuss with others (including patients) the implications of this new report.  Physicians may use social networking to discuss practice management and other issues not directly related to individual patient care, including healthcare reform or payment  for covered Medicare services. 

Physician-to-patient communication 

Physicians may elect to use social networking to directly communicate with their patients regarding how they personally interpret study results. This ensures that the information quickly reaches the patients. In addition, helpful patient education resources can be shared via the social networking sites. 

Professional groups 

A growing network of people living with cancer and their families are using social networking for information, support, lobbying, and fund-raising.1 In one Facebook search in 2008, more than 500 such groups were found. Cancer organizations could band together to provide a type of central clearinghouse for up-to-the-minute information about cancer prevention and control, and to communicate effectively and efficiently with their own members and other organizations.1


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